With South Bend not being too far of a drive from Cincinnati, it's almost a given the Bengals will be at Notre Dame's Pro Day most years. 2016 is no different as the Fighting Irish once again feature a wealth of NFL prospects. Anywhere between 7-10 guys could hear their names called during the draft, the highest of which being offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley. He's expected to be long off the board by the time Cincy is on the clock as he's viewed as a top-10 talent that could sneak into the top five.
But while Stanley is now Notre Dame's top pro prospect, that honor once belonged to All-American linebacker Jaylon Smith. No single player may have suffered a worse hit to his draft stock this offseason than Smith, who was once regarded as a top-five prospect and in contention for the No. 1 overall spot.
But a major knee injury suffered in his bowl game left Smith with a torn ACL, LCL and possibly nerve damage. The latter part was revealed during the NFL Scouting Combine, and was bad enough that multiple teams failed Smith in his physical and removed him from their consideration. This may be a similar scenario to what South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore faced in the 2013 draft, when a similar injury led to a first-round talent sliding to the late fourth round and eventually retiring after just two years in the NFL.
It's hard to see Smith going in the first round now, which is certainly where he would have been drafted without the injury. The Bengals were at one time a team that could have used him, but after re-signing Vinny Rey and adding Karlos Dansby, there's no need to take Smith as he's likely to miss most, if not all of his rookie season.
The one Notre Dame prospect that does make sense for the Bengals in Round 1 is wide receiver Will Fuller. The 6'0", 187-pound speedster is one of the top receivers in this draft and someone the Bengals would have to spend the 24th pick on to land, as he's probably not lasting deep into the second round.
This past season with the Irish, Fuller had 62 catches for 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns on the year, despite playing with an inexperienced quarterback due to injuries at the position. In 2014, he caught 76 passes for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Fuller has drawn comparisons to speedy receivers like Tedd Ginn Jr., DeSean Jackson and Santonio Holmes. At this point, the Bengals probably value several other receivers more than him, but he may very well end up being the best one available at 24.
After him, center Nick Martin is guy to watch for Cincinnati. They need an upgrade at center, and Martin was one of the best in college football over the past three years, though he played 10 games at guard in 2014. He's also expected to go sometime in Round 2 or early in round 3, so maybe he's someone the Bengals will consider spending the 53rd-overall pick on.
NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compared Martin to Pro Bowl center John Sullivan:
SOURCES TELL US "He was much more athletic before his knee injury. He's had to fight through some physical limitations and I know that he's been frustrated because of that. He struggled in 2014 and I thought he still looked a little beat up this year. If he can get healthy, he'll start in our league." -- NFC North scout
NFL COMPARISON John Sullivan
BOTTOM LINE Three-year starter who possesses the leadership, intelligence and toughness that general managers and offensive line coaches look for from their centers. A season ending knee injury in 2013 might have taken away some of his natural bend and athleticism, but Martin's play strength and toughness should make him an early starter in the league at either guard or center.
You may know Martin's brother, Cowboys All-Pro center Zack Martin, who also played for Notre Dame before being a first-round pick in 2014. (Fun fact: Tyler Eifert's sister is engaged to Martin.) Hopefully we see Nick have a similar impact for a team like the Bengals.
Then there's defensive tackle Sheldon Day, who's expected to be drafted late on Day 2 or early in Day 3. The 6'1", 293-pound big man left Notre Dame with 32.0 career tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, with 15.5 of those TFLs coming as a senior along with a career-high 4.0 sacks and four passes defensed.
Day also played some defensive end in college, and he's a bit similar of a prospect as Marcus Hardison was last year. But while Hardison is more of a pass-rusher, Day is more of a force in the run game and would be used all over the Bengals defensive line if they drafted him. He's drawing comparisons to Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels, two very good lineman.
Running back C.J. Prosise is very intriguing prospect, especially for a team like the Bengals. While they don't need another running back, Prosise did spend much of his college career at wide receiver and safety before moving to the backfield this past season to help Notre Dame's dangerously-thin running back depth.
Prosise led the Irish with 1,029 yards on 157 carries (6.6-yard average) and 11 touchdowns despite having never played the position before the spring. He also caught 55 passes for 824 yards and three scores in 23 games over the past two seasons (missed 2 games in 2015 due to injury).
Prosise then posted one of the better 40-yard dash times by a back at the NFL Scouting Combine, where his 4.48-second sprint ranked eighth among backs. It sounds like he'll stick to running back in the NFL as he's projected as a Day 3 pick.
Also occurring on Thursday was the Bengals working out Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Vernon Butler, who's regarded as one of the draft's best defensive lineman.
This past season, Butler registered 41 total tackles with three tackles for loss, three pass breakups and one fumble recovery. Sports Illustrated actually ranks Butler as the 18th-overall prospect in this year's NFL draft, and NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compares him to Jets All-Pro tackle Muhammad Wilkerson:
NFL COMPARISON Muhammad Wilkerson
BOTTOM LINE Athletic interior lineman with long arms and outstanding athleticism that allows him to work on offensive linemen with a combination of power and quickness. Butler has a raw but diverse skillset as a pass rusher that should excite NFL evaluators who see the potential of what he can be with more coaching and experience. With his effort and defensive ball awareness, his ceiling appears to be high with a chance to become a high-level starter for an odd or even front defense.
Even for a defensive tackle-heavy team like the Bengals, it would be hard to pass on a talent like Butler. At least the Bengals are doing their homework to make sure he may actually be worth the 24th-overall pick.